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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Labor Unions During the Great Depression and New Deal
An Elevator Strike

The following excerpt from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 was taken from a series of interviews conducted during a strike of elevator workers in New York City. The interviewer tried to capture some of the language of the workers, so deciphering some of the words may be more difficult than normal. Sounding the words out may be helpful. What points of view do these strikers have about the strike and about their union? Where do they seem to agree and disagree?

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----- WE RUN THE BUILDING (Says a union garment worker)

At the hearing with the Mayor we got two thousand people to mob the twentieth floor. It took us twenty minutes to round them up, we sent people into the market and pulled them out. That hall was packed, I'm telling you and it had a very salutary effect on the conference. That's the kind of cooperation the elevator men get from us. Last strike we pulled the scabs right out of the cars. I remember they hired fifteen Mexican boys, poor kids. Five o' clock the day of the strike we figured on walking down from work. Instead we went out in the ahll and rang for the elevators all at the same time. When they dame up, we rushed in, locked the doors, took them down and marched the kids out through the cellar into the street. You should have seen the scabs marching in front of us. This strike they're scared of us . They don't dare hire scabs. After all, we just run the building. In fact, we won the strike last time and we're going to win this one also for 32B. . . .

----- NIGHT PICKET (An elevator man who should be at night law school keeps on picketing a dark building)

I'm a student at N.Y.U. I'm working my way through night law school and I'm married, besides. But I'd stay out and starve and lose my education rather than not strike for what I think is right. Mayor or no Mayor. Why, we used to be fired on the spot if we answered back. You can imagine a man answering back, especially if he was married, he must have been goaded beyond endurance. The mayor, perhaps, thinks of us the way the others do. That is, we're unskilled labor and, rather than strike for a decent life, we should keep the peace. But how account for all the accidents in the last strike when the desperate owners were hiring inexperienced scabs and thugs? I myself recall how one of those scabs was crushed between the elevator and the shaft. Anybody can step into our jobs, that's what they say. It's not ture. These are our jobs and we won't let any ody else step into them. We'll strike, and we'll go on striking until we get some decent treatment. If it takes twenty four hours, all the better, but if it takes longer, that's their hard luck, the Mayor to the contrary notwithstanding. . . .

-----A UNION MAN TELLS HIS TROUBLES WHILE WAITING.

I look like a husky guy, don't I, but I can't even lift fifty pounds. I'm weak in the knees. Them high spped cars they affect your kidneys and your heart. After five years you're licked. Stands to reason. You ain't got your natural health no more. Outside of that, they're useless to humanity. There's Rudy over on twelfty street, complaining about pains in the stomach and piles. He got it from the high speed. Feller on Broad Street, you know him, Pete, he quit a year ago, he says to me once, "Boy, I'm glad I'm out of that poison gas." That's just what it is. Poison gas. Here, look at the back of my neck, you see that? All caved in there? Look at the way I'm standing. That's what you call a occupational disease. Maybe I look like an athlete but don't trust looks. Honestly, I couldn't lift up a baby. . . .

[According to the interviews, the union members voted to go back to work.] Enuff tuh make yuh wanna jump on de CIO. Dey may be uh bunchah radicals but dey and' do no woise. Am I gawn back timorrer? Yeah, tuh duh pickit line. Dis ain't ovuh yet. 47 an 1. Where duh dey cum off wid dat stuff? So insteduh twenny minits maybe we get toity minits relief. Duh original idee wuz tuh make maw jobs so's de udder guys widout jobs coulda jumped intuh duh jobs. Ohm a lock-out man an I know de way dose poor suckers feel. I lawst plenty by stickin up fuh de union . I wuz locked out on accountuh de . . . union . Den too I broke my leg an I got discouraged much tuh my sorrow. Ten or fifteen years back yuh try an tell me dat I'm gonna be an indoor aviator I'd ah laffed at yuh. Nuttin but duh Greeks an furrinuhs wuz in duh racket. I remembah de ol' Woild, how it use tuh run de Help Wanteds. De whole page, Elevatuh Man Wanted, Elevatuh Man Wanted. Nickel uh bunch. Aah, wot's duh use talkin? . . . I hate like hell tuh face de tenants timorrer. Dey'll give us de hawse laff right an left. 47 an 1. An all duh papuhs'll be sayin, "BAMBRICK CLAIMS MAWRUL VICTORY FUH UNION." Maybe dis ain't dah place tuh say it, but nobody kin stop me frum tinkin. Honestly, ohm disgustid. I dunno, maybe I'll go home an brood, maybe I'll get stewed, I gotta do somthin.
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View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.